NBN: Happy birthday to you

A year ago today, I sat in the lounge room eating a bowl of Nutri-grain while watching Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy announce their quite astounding NBN plan. A year later, they've run the gauntlet and set the wheels in motion. But they have not come through totally unscathed.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

A year ago today, I sat in the lounge room eating a bowl of Nutri-grain while watching Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy announce their quite astounding plan to throw out their original NBN tender, and drive the project on top-down basis by building their own network.

I did, and I am not exaggerating, nearly choke on my cereal, such was the enormity of what they had decided to do. It was an extraordinary turn of events then, and opened the gate to an extraordinary series of events over the past year.

We had the almost overnight declaration that Tasmania would be the first state to be NBN-ified, followed by rapid action with the creation of TNBN Co, the issue of tenders, the ejection of onetime joint venture partner Aurora Energy, and the construction of infrastructure throughout several areas of the state.

On the whole, the Tasmanian project has gone quite smoothly; this is great for Federal Labor, which has in no small part balanced its hopes for re-election on the success of this project. Ditto the naming of the first mainland areas to be wired; the installation of 400km of backhaul through some of the country's least-wired areas; the announcement that NBN Co services could indeed run at up to 1Gbps; and concrete steps such as the recent request for capability statement from companies that are ready to handle the massive fibre rollout.

(Image by Ed Sanders, CC BY-SA 3.0)

While the backhoes are making lots of progress, Conroy has faced the usual political dramas — the predictable partisan obstruction from the Opposition, and controversy over the appointment of Mike Kaiser and several ex-McKinsey partners to NBN Co roles. Then there were the dramas when draft legislation suggested NBN Co could sidestep its wholesale-only mandate and become a retailer in certain circumstances. The Opposition has also been picking at the network's foundations, letting loose with hyperbole and saying it wouldn't necessarily continue the project if elected, although it would — in a veiled suggestion that Conroy needs to work even faster to secure contracts — honour whatever contracts are in place if and when they take power.

Add to this the incessant pummeling of Conroy over his poorly-conceived internet filter, and it has not been an easy year for our communications minister, who has turned out to be his own worst enemy when it comes to policy making (on a side note, Enex TestLab, the company whose testing validated Conroy's filter pilot, is celebrating its 21st birthday today). That the NBN seems able to progress despite its critics is testament to Conroy's grim determination to push the network through one way or another; whether he is held accountable at the polls for this somewhat unorthodox course of action, we will soon find out. One suspects many voters may quickly forget and forgive if better broadband is just around the corner.

Changes in Telstra's role have been interesting to watch. A year ago, the success or failure of the NBN was said to depend on Telstra, since nebulous network costings seemed to make sense only if the NBN Co could access Telstra's local-loop infrastructure. These days, Telstra continues to claim to be engaged with the government on negotiations over access, but the continuing inertia — which serves Telstra just fine, thank you — suggests otherwise.

It has not been an easy year for our communications minister, who has turned out to be his own worst enemy when it comes to policy making.

There seems to a looming sense that Telstra's position of power is dwindling; certainly, the histrionic tenor of the debate has quietened down a bit. Perhaps both sides are pausing to take a breath and regroup for the election. Yet while it claims the moral high ground, Telstra increasingly seems less concerned with getting a fair price for its network than it is on using that network to cause the NBN grief in any way that it can. Telstra continues pushing its wireless network hard, recognising that its copper local loop is on the way out.

All's fair in love and telecoms, they say, so we really can't be surprised that things have shaped up this way. But with an election looming, the pressure to produce is on — even from inside Labor, with Rudd reportedly raking Conroy over the coals after reading the NBN implementation report.

Is the camaraderie between Rudd and Conroy, so warmly demonstrated in that carefully-staged photo opportunity on that mild April morning a year ago, still there? Or will the pressures of the election take their toll, forcing Rudd to scale back the scope of the project and hang Conroy out to dry in response to calls for accountability over its cost? Changing scope now would seem to be an unacceptable move, since the NBN's core principle is one of equal access and scaling back its ambitions would smack of compromise and typical capital-city service bias. It could also reveal Labor as the endlessly-optimistic overspenders that the Opposition says they are.

For all the hot air being thrown its way, there is much reason to rejoice over the NBN's progress to date: after years of little change in the telcoms market and one abortive broadband policy after another, Rudd and Conroy have at least gotten the broadband train out of the station. For all the other policy challenges they face this year, the question of whether they can keep that train on the rails may yet prove to be their biggest test — and could be their biggest victory.

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